The day starts early in the suburban community of Metar, 18 km north of Beersheva and just 3 km south of the Green Line, where the electrified fence separates Israel from the West Bank. One of Israel’s best kept secrets, Metar is a community housing almost 10,000 middle-class residents, most of whom work in Beersheva and its environs. Along with the sister communities of Lehavim and Omer, the area between Beersheva and the West Bank has become transformed into a high-quality living area second to none; the suburbia of the south.
A 20-minute journey to my office at Ben-Gurion University for a quick meeting and then on to other engagements in Tel Aviv. BGU – a world-class university, less than 50 years old, with some 20,000 students, a third of them postgraduate and research students, an academic faculty numbering over 900, with a first-rate medical school, cyber security center, desert research at Sdeh Boker, and a leading faculty of humanities and social sciences known for its critical analyses of Israeli society.
Had I only one meeting in Tel Aviv, I would have traveled directly by train from the station next to the university and within a little over an hour stepped down at the Arlozorov or University stations in Tel Aviv. Avoiding traffic congestion, using the train wi-fi to work, the country’s rail system has moved ahead in leaps and bounds during the past decade, enabling speedy access from the periphery to the center.
But as is so often the case, a day in Tel Aviv means a multi-purpose trip. I take the car, using the trans-Israel highway (Kvish 6) which, traffic congestion allowing, gets me to the metropolis in little over an hour.
First stop is a workshop in the south of Tel Aviv, not far from the old bus station. Two years ago on a visit to the Israel Museum I discovered some gifts (table place mats and coasters) with a matza design. In advance of this year’s Passover I have decided to purchase enough for the entire Seder night. I negotiate my way through a maze of workshops, housing artisans and designers, to pick up my personalized order.
As I park my car, using the amazing Israeli Pango phone application which allows me to park and pay anywhere in the country with the press of a button, I encounter a group of beautiful African children emerging from their kindergarten with their teacher. Well groomed, walking in line, they speak to each other in fluent Hebrew, as they move down the streets of an area which has now become populated by immigrant groups from many different countries and which lends color and diversity to the city.
From there it is on to my accountant, whose offices are located in the rapidly expanding area of highrise constructions on Rothschild Boulevard. Surrounded by yuppies and yuppie restaurants, this is the center of much of Israel’s finance, and investment, populated by smart young professionals who would be at home anywhere in the world, from London to Tokyo, and from New York to Johanesburg, so far removed from the younger adult generation of the early decades of statehood.
A 20-minute drive across town to the north of the city for some research meetings at Tel Aviv University. North and South Tel Aviv, minutes apart in travel time, but worlds apart in social and ethnic composition.
Normally this would be enough for one day before driving back south, but I have another important engagement. In the evening, at the Botanical Gardens in Jerusalem, the Rabbis for Human Rights organization (RHR) will be holding its 25th anniversary event. It is an organization I hold in high regard and with which my late father, a retired rabbi from the UK, was proudly involved for over 20 years.
Driving up to Jerusalem, I marveled at the modern road construction technologies, as the road is widened, tunnels and bridges are constructed, and parts of the mountain are shaved away. New bridges are being constructed at Motza, one to straighten the road, the other to bring the new railway line directly into the city underneath the existing bus station.
Following the RHR event it is time to visit my elderly mother and some of my children who live, study and work in this most unique of cities. A bistro on Emek Refaim is a good meeting place, reminding me of normality in a city which is becoming increasingly haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in some sections, and Palestinian in others. A city of contrasts, conflicts and diversity, but retaining its historical and cultural uniqueness.
Time to head back south and I take the quick route through Gilo, the tunnels, Gush Etzion and along the Hebron bypass route in the West Bank. I twice cross the border, entering Gush Etzion from the north, and just 50 minutes later, after a dark, bumpy and windy route through the Palestinian villages, crossing just north of Metar.
Most of my Israeli friends and acquaintances will rarely travel this way – either they are too afraid, or they refuse on moral grounds – not prepared to travel the roads of Israeli occupation. I weigh up both of these considerations but, at the end of a long and tiring day, I want to get back as speedily as possible. No traffic cops on the West Bank road and, so far, fingers crossed, after hundreds of trips no major stone-throwing or firebomb incidents.
The West Bank is a completely different world to that of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, a world which may one day, in the not too distant future, become part of a neighboring state living side to side with Israel in something called peace – inshallah (Arabic for “God willing”) – although it doesn’t look that way at present.
As I pass through the Metar crossing point, my fluent Hebrew and general appearance is enough for the barrier to be automatically opened while, I am ashamed to say, others who do not meet these automatic recognition criteria are stopped and checked. I’m not particularly proud of the fact that I get privileged treatment, and I hope that after 30 years in the country, this is not the only way in which I am identified as a “bona fide” Israeli.
At the end of the day, like the game of Monopoly, I have returned to my point of origin by means of a circular route. Each leg of the journey has rarely taken longer than an hour, but I have succeeded in traversing over a third of the country.
In the space of 15 hours I have traversed three of the country’s four major cities – Beersheva, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and have traveled from desert to coast and up into the mountains and back again. Through poor and wealthy neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, religious and secular neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian communities of the West Bank.
It is but a single day in one of the most exciting but challenging countries in the world.
A country full of contrasts and diversity. Things we love and things we hate. But, at the end of the day, it is our country and we will continue to strive to make it a better place in which to live. Greener pastures elsewhere are not for us.
Happy Birthday, Israel!
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.